Washington Insights (November-December 2021)


Washington Insights (November-December 2021)

The excitement in DC and in webinars with a DC presence was generated by South Korean appeals for Washington to join in a call to North Korea for an end-of-war declaration. Fervor of this sort was reminiscent of appeals by past South Korean administrations for support, whether over North Korean policy, “culture wars” with Japan, acceptance of East Sea along with Japan Sea, or endorsement of the Northeast Asian Peace and Security Initiative. Seoul has repeatedly sought to mobilize opinion in think tanks and Congress for its diplomatic agenda, invariably encountering bewilderment in the US over how these moves would achieve policy objectives.

There was scant other excitement in the fall months. Kishida Fumio’s rise to prime minister put a familiar face in charge in Japan with a policy agenda already coordinated with Biden’s foreign policy team. Few Chinese or Russians engaged in exchanges over foreign policy, given the sharp lines drawn against the US as well as pandemic barriers. In any case, divisions were fixed with no prospect of finding common ground at this time. Yet Sino-Russian relations drew scrutiny with occasional input from Russians. Given the predominance of Japan and South Korea in the webinars, their bilateral ties naturally arose. Finally, the reach of the Quad drew attention, too, as did the potential for US-EU cooperation in the Indo-Pacific after the AUKUS rift had opened. The common denominator for this theme and the US-ROK discussions was US alliances groping with challenges of coordination as the Biden administration prepared a vision statement and strategy for the Indo-Pacific region and faced countries more hesitant about confronting China.

Japan-ROK Relations One subject raised in DC was the prospect for Japan-ROK cooperation and triangularity in the Kishida era, especially as he deals with a new Korean president from May 2022. Whereas Kishida is experienced in negotiating with Seoul—in 2015 as foreign minister he delivered the “comfort women” agreement—his base is conservative and influenced by anti-Korea emotions on the rise in Japan. A fourth force standing in the way of improved ties has been added—that is, public opinion in Japan—as well as the usual forces of Japanese conservative spokespersons, Korean media, and South Korean public opinion. Recognizing that Tokyo is no longer a passive force unable to move without the US, but a co-shaper of regional policy in the Indo-Pacific, Seoul faces the challenge of accepting Japan on new terms. New appointments raise the profile of human rights and economic security in Japan, also tying it closer to the priorities of the US. Now more confident, Japan is less inclined to listen to the US on South Korea. All of these factors raise the stakes for Japan-ROK talks in the second half of 2022 to turn relations around before another downturn occurs, making that even more difficult at a cost to the US regional strategy.

The Korean Peninsula As elections loomed in Japan and South Korea, listeners heard an update. The ruling party candidate has been nominated in Korea. Real estate is a primary concern. The candidate is accused of a scandal in this area. Yet the conservative opposition is in shambles. Both candidates are likely to stress the alliance, but the progressive candidate could try something new on North Korea, which may be disturbing to the US. Job creation is the biggest issue for the economy. All sectors of society are angry. A high level of vaccination has taken the pandemic off the table. Some of Moon’s foreign policy could be reversed, as with North Korea or with the US on tactical nuclear weapons, if the conservative won. The progressive is eager to lift sanctions and remains silent on human rights, saying there is no reason to lean to either China or the US. The conservative would strengthen the alliance into a comprehensive, strategic alliance, even joining the Quad and leaning further to the US. In this election, there will be sharp differences on foreign policy as well as on domestic policy. Neither candidate seeks middle ground. The ruling party has gained a lot from vaccination, but the bump of late may fade. The US clearly is much more aligned with the conservative approach to foreign policy. Democrats have mostly dealt with conservative ROK governments until 2021, which is proving difficult for Biden. Yet there was good language in May on the supply chain, emerging technology, health as well as climate change.

In one webinar, the idea that security and human rights policy toward North Korea have a zero-sum relationship was refuted. Information is a big theme in this argument. North Korea is taking new steps to restrict access to outside information, using advanced digital technology for a new age of censorship and surveillance. Diverse outside efforts over two decades have tried to breach the controls. Prolonged border closures have complicated such efforts. When the US is not talking to North Korea, it raises human rights concerns, as in the US in 2017, but in 2018 as talks proceeded the US grew silent. The results of such silence show that security was not enhanced. During the Six-Party Talks, the US side shunted human rights aside to focus on negotiations, although Bush proceeded on his own, caring a lot about human rights. In the region, including in the Roh Moo-hyun administration, US envoys were not welcomed on this.

Should there be an end-of-war declaration? One exchange exploring this issue said the Moon administration is focusing on this to bring the North Koreans back to talks. Before, it was seen as a last step. This is short of a peace treaty to end the war. This is a way to show the North that the US has no hostile policy. The big push at the end of 2021 is due to the political calendar in Seoul and to the new concerns about North Korea returning to “normal” behavior. Seoul wants progress before the Beijing Olympics and the winter military exercises of 2022. It says this will not be legally binding, and there is no need to worry. The North has long sought a peace treaty. Yet, no moves toward denuclearization suggest to some that the timing is bad. If there are conditions, the North is likely to resist. Trump was already willing to discuss this, but Kim Jong-un only sought big sanctions relief. There has to be peaceful intentions by Pyongyang for this to be seen as positive. This represents negotiating without any sign that Pyongyang is interested or willing to move without sanctions relief. Pyongyang could use it to denounce joint exercises or human rights criticisms. It could start a slippery slope toward a peace treaty with demands that US troops leave the peninsula. Some alliance structures could be put in jeopardy. Defying reality opens a Pandora’s box of follow-on effects. This issue has little to do with the reasons North Korea has refused prior deals. It refuses verification and other steps. The US has said on many occasions that it will not attack North Korea. It could repeat that, but Seoul wants more. To declare peace now is equivalent to accepting a nuclear North Korea. If this might be part of a small package deal, some say, first North Korea has to sit down and explain what it would accept other than major sanctions relief. Also, the South Korean public is unlikely to be swayed by such a superficial agreement. The most successful policy in three decades was maximum pressure in 2017, which ended abruptly with maximum engagement. Kim Jung-un had his best chance under Trump. Now we have maximum impasse. It takes going to the brink, as in 1994 and 2018, to get some progress. Obama sent credible signals, opening the best opportunity and persuading China in 2016 to boost some sanctions.    

A “balanced” perspective on North Korea is sought by South Korea. Seoul has the highest percentage of military expenses of any US ally with 7 percent increases per year recently. A framework to keep Pyongyang on track is needed. In 2018 there was hope for this. The ROK-US summit in May laid a foundation to pick up where we left off in 2018. Moon has proposed an end-of-war declaration to revive talks with Pyongyang. On China, Seoul’s course was described as a good working relationship with a huge trade surplus, but overdependence puts supply chain resilience in doubt. The more US-China tensions, the more tension is felt in Seoul. China is needed for making peace on the Korean Peninsula. As a trading nation, Seoul is pragmatic.

As the Sino-US relationship changes in character with deeper strategic competition, the ROK faces new challenges. Both sides are tolerating more confrontation in the relationship, leading to more volatility. Domestic politics may influence ties more than geopolitics. Pressures on US partners and allies are more acute, more costly. China is testing the risks countries are wiling to bear. It is asking states to choose more than the US is, as seen in Australia. Does Seoul’s unwillingness to speak vocally on Hong Kong damage the alliance? The US should accept some such cautions. China needs to be open-minded about bilateral relations. South Korea as the US has a heightened sense of overdependency, even with thoughts of de-coupling. Weaponized economic dependence is undermining market-driven interdependence. There is also a sharp decline in mutual public perceptions. Elite politics and Korean polarization stand in the way of improving bilateral ties.

Will realism serve stability or not? China sees systems in conflict with the US, leading to moves to neutralize South Korean leanings to the US. South Korean cultural influence over Chinese is seen as spiritual pollution. Korea’s balance is not equidistance. It tries to avoid territorial and sovereignty challenges to China or friction due to high trade volumes and the pursuit of cooperation, as in the 2022 Winter Games, to renew talks with North Korea. The ROK is cautious not to irritate China on values. Choosing free and open and other principles leads to joining the US camp, a coalition that has momentum. The US seeks a new steady state with common sense guardrails with China, but China is ready for more coercion, more risk. It is hard to ignore genocide. Mutual respect means no criticism of China, something hard to avoid. The two big risks to the alliance are a crisis we are unprepared for, as in the Taiwan Strait; and divergence on China causing drift and diminishing the alliance. China is the organizing principle for DOD, and the ROK does not embrace that. The alliance needs to evolve, discussing the China challenge. With China technology is where cooperation breaks down first. There will no longer be a normal trade relationship, including limits on capital flows, which are still going strong, For the alliance to go forward we must resolve the China challenge. The Chinese strategy is to neutralize South Korea. Seoul must not overlook that if it seeks to keep the alliance strong.

On North Korea, Seoul is dissatisfied with the US only saying is it is open to dialogue at any time without preconditions. Pyongyang’s restraint may soon end. Seoul wants to act now, as on an end-of-war declaration. This is not a stable stalemate, and the US loses over time. Its relative influence decreases as China’s grows. Options are limited. Moon is making a valiant last-minute effort. North Korea will refuse it. The US understands that Kim wants significant sanctions relief.  Kim wants the progressives to win in 2022, affecting his approach—some testing but not likely to arouse an overreaction and some signs of seeking more dialogue with Seoul. Biden is correct in working closely with Seoul. In 2022, there may be consensus on stabilizing the peninsula, given the Chinese and US domestic cycles and the agenda of the next South Korean president. The US is not now seeking a grand bargain or strategic patience. Deterrence is foremost.

Policies have been mistaken in assuming China’s cooperation on denuclearization, in moralizing about the North by pushing it too hard, and by narrowly focusing on the nuclear dimension. A new, comprehensive approach is needed or China’s influence will grow. North Korea has been pushed into China’s orbit for two decades. One means to alter this is declaring the end of war or establishing liaison offices. North Korea will provoke in 2022 if there is no bold approach. If sanctions are maintained, what hope is there in this? The US was willing to do these things in Hanoi, but it collapsed over sanctions. Compared to the past, there are no assumptions that China will play a positive role. Koreans want a redo of Hanoi, building on the Singapore deal. Such was the reasoning of Korean presenters, seeking to persuade their US counterparts.

The Joint Statement from the May Moon-Biden summit threaded a needle and is likely to remain the foundation of the relationship no matter which candidate is elected president. In light of the limited foreign policy experience of the two, much depends on the foreign policy team the winner chooses. There is no reason to arouse doubts now in regard to the military alliance, such as regarding OPCON transfer. Procedures are in place to move forward. As for the new stress on “Global Korea,” there is much room to flesh that out. Particularly challenging is the May commitment to bridge military and economic matters, including diversification of supply chains, joint R&D, export controls to protect vital industries, development of renewables, and the securitization of technology. There is not yet an architecture to enable consultations or mechanisms to reduce market-based decisions without a security input. This shift in decision-making will be more difficult for South Korea, which depends more on the Chinese market. In the US and ROK traditional security types have operated on one plane while building trust, and trade officials on another plane. How can the two be blended together? The old ways of doing business, such as just-in-time supplies and blind ignorance of subcontractor sources, will be difficult to maintain. Already Japan has established a minister of economic security, offering a new basis of control. The alliance will be tested by Seoul’s hesitation to act.

Another test is relations with China. Seoul may not appreciate its great economic vulnerability to China. In the case of THAAD, it was portrayed as forced on South Korea, which made the South a victim of China’s response more than a harbinger of what happens when the risk of overdependency is too great. More focus is needed on the growing economic coercion by China and Russia and what is needed preemptively to lessen the danger. More also is needed on how China tries to weaken the alliance, Seoul also may have counted too much on China playing a positive role in reunification, as Park Geun-hye did, and may now be drifting toward an illusion of being able to dislodge North Korea from China’s orbit. Some suggest that if China draws the North closer it will hurt the alliance, given China’s multiple advantages over the US across the peninsula—geographical, cultural, economic. This is a misreading of the Sino-ROK-DPRK triangle as if Pyongyang could tilt to Seoul rather than Beijing and Beijing does not have the leverage to deny Seoul its peninsular goals. Indeed, the consensus in the US is that China has been using North Korea’s “legitimate security concerns” to pursue its own objectives against South Korea and the US. The lone exception, when China took sanctions seriously at the end of 2017, had two unique circumstances: total US focus on North Korea in Sino-US relations, when they were still in an uncertain state; and unprecedented Chinese anger at the North’s leader for testing a nuclear weapon near China’s border and continuously showing disrespect to Xi Jinping. Kim in 2018 stabilized the relationship, and Sino-US relations entered a downward spiral that reduced any prospect of further coordination on North Korea of the sort achieved at the end of 2017.

Why pursue talks on a declaration of the end of war? On the one hand, this is the burning desire of the Moon administration, and out of respect for it the US must take this prospect seriously. On the other, as in 2015 when Park Geun-hye was obsessed with her Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative, there is hardly anyone in DC who sees this as promising. The only comparable idea that the US had accepted, but only on condition that denuclearization advance first, was the fifth working group of the Six-Party Talks in 2007. If the purpose is to garner support from China in dealing with North Korea, China’s lack of interest is a telling sign. If it is to delink North Korea from China, encouraged by the negative remarks made by North Korean officials in private talks, then this misjudges how much more Pyongyang would be discomforted by Seoul or Washington’s demands than Beijing’s. If the idea is to give Pyongyang more confidence in its security, this is far-fetched since the real threat to the regime—South Korea’s presence as an alternative model and cultural magnet—would not be changed.

Despite the success of the May Joint Statement and the upbeat mood on the surface, relations between Washington and Seoul have been troubled by conflicting approaches to North Korea. The good news is that close consultations continue with no open, mutual accusations. The bad news is that the gap is wide and not narrowing, as Seoul feels stifled in its last, best chance for peace by overreliance on pressure and Washington suspects that engagement without signs of denuclearization would lead to appeasement. To buy stability in this way would be an illusion. A peace declaration would not change North Korea’s strategic calculus but embolden it to push further to drive the US out and coerce South Korea into reunification on the North’s terms.

In one seminar where Koreans made the case for an end-of-war declaration, the US pushback made for a lively set of exchanges. The Korean side stated that Biden’s policy for North Korea has hit an impasse, which is bad because time is on the North’s side. The goal must be peaceful coexistence, and it has been within reach on occasions in the 1990s, 2000ss, and 2020s, but each time through US mistakes it proved elusive. If North Korea was sincere, as in 2019, the US proved untrustworthy. The key to building trust now is an end-of-war declaration. Nuclear weapons are a survival strategy for Pyongyang. By partially lifting them, with snap-back provisions, trust would be built. Once an atmosphere of confrontation was fading, the pathway for peaceful coexistence on the peninsula would evolve, parallel to what happened between the US and the PRC in 1971-72. Seoul has proven itself over seven decades the ideal US ally and in 2021 has followed the guidelines set with Biden faithfully. With this new declaration, it can be trusted to cooperate closely on what would be a sustainable legacy from the Moon era. The South Korean case for a declaration appealed also to US national interest versus China. The US must stop alienating China and losing its support in dealing with North Korea, while it can count on North Korean alarm about China to boost peaceful coexistence supportive of a US presence. The US pushback took many forms. First, the case rests on accepting a North Korean paradigm of US hostile policy. This turns history on its head since it is North Korean hostile policy since the end of the Korean War that has disrupted the peace and prevented successful talks. Also, the case treats the US as having broken faith with the Singapore Declaration, when the North was the one who did so. Second, the case misjudges the purposes of sanctions—many of which were partially successful—while assuming that diplomacy alone works, when diplomacy has mostly failed. Third, the assumption is made that North Korea would agree to making such a declaration, when it is repeatedly asserted that it has preconditions for talks, unlike the US side. Fourth, there is an inconsistency on the part of the Moon administration, claiming both that this is a cost-free, symbolic step with few consequences and that this is transformative by changing the calculus of Pyongyang. Indeed, the message to Pyongyang—but not the US—is that this is proof of a fundamental change in the US position, ensuring that once again hope would be raised only to be dashed by charges of broken promises. Fifth, part of the case for the declaration is to strengthen the alliance since the Moon administration adamantly seeks this. Yet the impact in the US is predictable: Biden would be ruthlessly attacked as soft on North Korea without anything to show for his concession to Seoul, and the contrasting words in Seoul and DC would fuel this barrage. Sixth, coming just before South Korea’s presidential elections, the US would be seen as interfering with a possible conservative president’s agenda by trying to lock in Moon’s legacy. Seventh, to proceed without any indication of Pyongyang’s intentions and next steps is to walk into a trap. In this regard, the US remains unclear about the wording of the declaration, which may reaffirm or replace the armistice with widely different implications. Eighth, the multi-stage scenario outlined from peace declaration to peace treaty to normalization of US-North Korean relations to lasting peaceful coexistence has so many leaps of faith and doubtful assumptions about North Korean behavior that many saw it as desperate, wishful thinking. Finally, the absence of China in the discussion was viewed as geopolitically uniformed since its response to the 2018-19 diplomacy was largely negative and possibly significant for the poor outcome and it has made clear that it has cards to play with both Koreas to shape new talks. Sino-Russian Relations On Sino-Russian relations, it was explained that Russia is a key part of China’s strategy versus the US. It shares complaints about interference in sovereignty issues. The US opportunity to impact Sino-Russian relations begins by not exaggerating the extent to which they are working together. Russia will not mobilize to join China in Asian fighting and China also will not do so for Russia. Thus, there is no alliance. The US confronts them where they are not partners. Russia’s economic power is not joined with China In technology. They are opposed on Central Asia and elsewhere on the Eurasian landmass. The BRI is a challenge to Russia, encroaching on Russia’s interests. The Taliban is likely to play off the two against each other. Russia needs China more than China needs Russia, which makes Russia uncomfortable. China is a less revisionist power internationally. Yet, the US has little chance to take advantage of such fault lines without risking a counterproductive response. This was a US assessment of how little leverage it actually has.

A Russian response was that Russia is not a revisionist power since it sees the liberal world order as dead, including US partners of old. China is much more revisionist now, seeing that the positive environment since the 1980s is gone. The domestic and external systems are changing, both incompatible with the international system. Russia is now seen in the US as no longer the major opponent, arousing a sudden adjustment. It is beginning to see how it can benefit from this. The Sino-Russian relationship is dynamic—experience multiple stages over the past seven years. From bitter disappointment in the West and euphoria over China to realism that interactions with Chinese show it is hard to find common ground with both politicians and businessmen, ties still improved on a sober basis. It is reckless not to have excellent relations with China, given its power and proximity. US ideas are baseless to drive a wedge. There is a growing internal debate about how to deal with clashing interests, affected by the style of Chinese diplomacy applied to Russia as well. Russia is the only neighbor of China not afraid of China. All other neighbors are terrified. Russia is confident it can deter China, which is taken in China as a positive factor. Clashes in Eurasia are inevitable, but that is not now happening. Those states are more afraid of China than Russia, giving Russia an advantage. The big advantage of Russia is China’s offensive threat, but that does not mean a clash ahead. Of late, Putin has said an alliance is not needed by either side. Biden’s stress on “free world” versus the rest pushes China and Russia together, while serving his goal of consolidating the West.

This is a limited partnership, and there are limited options for the US. In some areas, there is little cooperation. China does not offer so much to Russia in many areas. This is only a loose partnership with both sides wary. In defense areas this is quite consequential for the US. The threat from the US has been understated here. The US-led order still threatens exclusion to both. In Beijing there is some concern that US overtures could turn Moscow somewhat away. Some in the US also seek to give Russia more options; so ties to China might not strengthen. US allies show more flexibility to Russia. But these steps would require more stability in US-Russia ties, but this is difficult. Yet there is also the possibility the US will provoke these countries to draw closer together. The advice was to not encourage greater collaboration against the US. It is necessary to anticipate a different world order, recognizing the end of the old order. Realism calls for balance between the centers of power without Russia and China working together. No hope for Russia to be equidistant is in sight, but Russia could have a healthier relationship with Europe and the US. This avoids trying to create hostility between Russia and China. All three states would not be incentivized to become revisionist powers. The US needs to get buy-in from Russia and China. Without specifying the implications, this was seen as a call to satisfy Russia on Ukraine and China on Taiwan. If the US is caught in an impasse with China in the Pacific, Russia could be inclined to move in Ukraine. The US is concerned about avoiding this scenario, as the US tries to proceed with China without Russia taking such action. Russia is making the mistake in the 2020s that the US made in the 1990s: assuming a great power is fading away. Viewing the US as rapidly declining power with its order collapsing leads to shortsighted responses. For either state to assume that China is poised for decline, this would be a comparable mistake.

The Quad A webinar on the Quad indicated that it avoids the subjects of China and Taiwan. The focus is to provide public goods. The unstated message is the provision of military security. China’s use of coercion has driven this thinking. In the early days of the Quad, Taiwan was not a factor. Now, it likely is discussed behind closed doors. Coercion against anyone in the first island chain would send a signal about China’s intentions. India would be involved. In Japan there is a good image of the Quad, fed by Chinese grey zone activities around the Senkakus and by the rapid build-up of the Chinese navy. Japan lacks resources to do all it may desire in maritime affairs. There is no appetite for a treaty or standing secretariat. The Quad does not need to expand, but the Quad Plus can mee some purposes. No alliance is anticipated. Australia wants to use the Quad to shape a more favorable region, especially in Southeast Asia to China. All call this a positive partnership delivering public goods. It is still at the proof-of-concept stage. Deterrence is mainly done through other entities. Taiwan arises in both the Australia-US bilateral and the trilateral with Japan. Australia would be involved in some way in a Taiwan contingency occurs, but public opinion has not caught up or become supportive. Most want to remain neutral in a conflict, but that is not realistic. The main uncertainty is political change in India after the next election. The Indian Ocean is not an active theater of military operations now; the Quad is meeting current needs. The Quad shows willpower to stand up to China. Great Britain, France, and South Korea are debating signaling strategically where they are, too. The Quad Plus is an a la carte approach to that. AUKUS is a defense technology sharing arrangement, and the Quad is a loose diplomatic effort, not focused on defense. Both signal Australia’s concerns about China.

EU-US Cooperation on the Indo-Pacific In one seminar both sides recognized a great reshuffling of strategic interests in the world’s new center of geoeconomics and geopolitical gravity and searched for shared understanding that could boost EU-US cooperation. This was seen as critical for not allowing divisions among allies to be exploited. On the European side, there is fear that Trump’s “America First” and anti-EU approach could return, commodifying security interests. Yet, it was recognized that the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US bridges the Trump and Biden administrations and is expected to last. At this time the US and EU are consulting on Indo-Pacific strategy, and the Biden administration is preparing an Indo-Pacific vision report buttressed by a strategy to realize the vision. While the case for the vision is not overly China-centered, the motivation certainly is.

Important here is convergence of the US and EU in assessing the China challenge and finding considerable common ground in their responses. As seen in China’s resort to economic coercion, there is a need for coordinated pushback and preventive steps to avoid unwanted dependency that can be exploited. Some concerns were expressed about divergence between the US and EU. While in the Obama era economics and security operated in separate silos for the most part, they are now being integrated into one comprehensive approach. In the EU this is slow to take place. In regard to how strategic issues are communicated, the US is more direct, seen as necessary to shape the narrative in support of the rules-based order, but the EU has been more indirect and some have seen US rhetoric as unnecessarily provocative, worrying the US as not up to the challenge. Finally, the US side seeks to slow China’s rise in areas of technology with military applications or the potential to be used for economic leverage, e.g., through export controls and investment screening. This is not called containment or support for a cold war, but it is aimed at China’s malign influence. In the 1970s-80s, it was difficult to get the US and European powers on the same wavelength on the Soviet Union. It will be much harder now on China.

Discussion treated AUKUS as a continuing problem for US-EU coordination in the Indo-Pacific, with a silver lining since it has stimulated much livelier exchanges, including France especially. As the danger of a clash over Taiwan grows, the US has security commitments in the region and has a sense of urgency. European rhetoric appears to stick to the idea of balancing competition, cooperation, and systemic rivalry without shifting the way the US has to systemic rivalry stands in the forefront. Not only is there no prospect of equidistance between the US and China or a European third way, which Europeans have lately acknowledged, but in light of growing signs of a Taiwan crisis, delay in assisting Taiwan to resist coercion raises problems in EU-US relations. If Xi Jinping earlier spoke of participating in global governance and switched to guiding it, his push to lead it is a gamechanger, given his plans and tactics. The exchanges pointed to recent shifts within the EU bringing it closer to the US position and to a new level of consultations, but they also suggested the importance of accelerating efforts to narrow differences in the near future.

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